The Judiciary Committee passed a bill Tuesday to increase the penalties for voter intimidation. But during the debate it was the current statute that was scrutinized by Republicans who suggested it may be unconstitutional.

The bill was proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and passed out of the Government Administration and Elections Committee last month. It takes crimes like threatening voters or spreading misleading information about elections for voter suppression and makes them Class C and D felonies.

The bill would also increase the punishment for employers who threaten to retaliate against workers in connection with an election, anyone who attempts to influence someone to refrain from voting, or trying to determine someone else’s vote.

Currently, those crimes are punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and between one and five years in prison. As felonies those penalties would be much steeper. A Class D felony can carry a fine of up to $5,000 and a five year prison sentence. Class C felonies are punishable with up to $10,000 and 10 years in prison.

Rep. Bob Godfrey, D-Danbury, said there’s been many attempts across the country in the last year and a half to intimidate and suppress voters.

“It’s a sad testimony on our times that this kind of thing has been happening in other places. Clearly not in Connecticut, due to the leadership of the Secretary of the State in particular, we’re going in the other direction,” he said. “We’re putting our money where our mouth is by increasing the fines.”

While Rep. John Hetherington, R-New Canaan, said the concept was probably good, he said the section of the underlying law that likely is unconsitutional is the portion that would make it illegal to influence someone not to vote. He said the peaceful advocacy of an election boycott has been used around the world as a political statement.

“I don’t believe we can constitutionally suppress what is clearly political speech,” Hetherington said. “When it’s peaceful, when it simply makes an argument by not voting, that is clearly within the realm of protected speech.”

Hetherington proposed an amendment that would have changed the language of the bill, making it a crime to use force in influencing someone not to vote.

Godfrey argued that the statute in question has been on the books for years and is aimed at preventing behavior seen in other states where individuals deliberately attempt to suppress votes by misleading people about details of an election. He said no one in Connecticut has been prosecuted under the law in at least the last 10 years.

“It’s a law that works and I would not like to remove it to prevent it from working,” he said.

Republicans argued that given the higher penalties it was important the committee had a firm grasp on what acts may be prosecuted under the law. It led to some “what if” scenarios.

“If somebody says the election’s next week, and they’re incorrect about it, but they pass that information on, my question would be are they prosecutable under the terms of this statute?” Rep. Arthur O’Neill asked.

Godfrey said no state’s attorney is going to prosecute someone for a felony simply for being wrong. They would still need to prove criminal intent, he said, “the mens rea that we talk about in law school and then kind of stop.”

Godfrey said “misinformation in and of itself isn’t a crime, it’s whether you’re trying to influence behavior in a criminal way.”

However Rep. Richard Smith, R-New Fairfield, suggested that there are times when it is appropriate to encourage someone not to vote in an election.

“I’m sitting with my neighbor, and I’m talking about two candidates and I say, ‘You know, both candidates are so unqualified, so ridiculous in their opinions that I think you should just not vote. It makes no sense at all,’” he said. “Under this statute, that comment, which is clearly political speech, I could be convicted of a Class D felony.”

However, most committee members wanted to keep the statute intact and raise the penalty. Hetherington’s amendment was voted down 14-9. The underlying bill was approved 20-9 with Hetherington’s support.